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Warning on plans for global life
science electronic journal

27 May 1999

[PARIS] The editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, has warned that plans for a global web site for the life sciences - 'E-Biomed' - may accentuate the AngloSaxon domination of publishing, thus discriminating against scientists from non-English language speaking and developing countries.

But Horton says that he is in principle ready to support the proposal by Harold Varmus, director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), for such a web site that would centralize much of the biomedical literature and make it freely accessible.

Meanwhile Frank Gannon, executive director of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) has met with Varmus to discuss the possibility that EMBO may join NIH in moving the proposal forward.

"I find 'E-Biomed' a very welcome stimulus for debate, I'm delighted to see it," says Horton, whose vision is one in which the primary literature would be freely accessible, with only the top journals surviving.

To guard against this the domination by Western Anglo-Saxon countries, Horton suggests that a large international conference should be organized with all interested parties to thrash out the many issues and ramifications of 'E-Biomed'.

This, he says, should be followed by the creation of a "prototype governing board" that would include representatives from smaller countries, charged with organizing a wide consultation and drafting a more complete proposal. "It is very important to make this as international as possible; it must not be a US-dominated initiative; it must be a truly global initiative," he says.

The meeting between Gannon and Varmus may be the first step in the internationalization of 'E-Biomed'. EMBO council is now considering the possibility of joining NIH in an interim governing board, and of offering its peer review services; although the council's next meeting is not until September, a decision could be fast tracked before then.

Some observers predict that if such an interim board can attract the major stakeholders this will be sufficient to get the 'E-Biomed' ball rolling, discounting the idea of a vast international consultation as risking allowing 'E-Biomed' to be led down a dark alley and quietly strangled by those with a vested interest in maintaining the current print journals system.

Separate plans to establish a pre-print server in biomedicine are also being discussed by the British Medical Journal and HighWire Press, a not-for-profit outfit set up in 1995 by Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources to help universities and societies to publish on the web at low cost.

"I think we are going to go forward anyway [despite the 'E-Biomed' proposal] on the grounds that a thousand flowers may bloom," says Michael Keller, head of Highwire Press. "At some point there will be a collapse into one or several servers," he predicts.

Keller points out as a pre-print server, the initiative is simpler than 'E-Biomed' which includes a proposal for a comprehensive peer review system. "We see it as a way of improving scholarly communication in the community and as a feeder to the peer review process."

Vitek Tracz, chief executive officer of the Current Science group, says his company will also launch a pre-print server (with optional peer review) this summer. It has decided to offer all primary papers in medicine and biology free online, and reap profits from review journals. Tracz is a keen supporter of 'E-Biomed', and is discussing his company's participation.


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